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Doris Anderson (CP file photo)

Hundreds of feminists gathered in Ottawa on Tuesday to celebrate the 25th anniversary of a civil-liberties milestone, which led to constitutional guarantees of equal rights for women.

A quarter century ago, the country was in the throes of debate over the proposed Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Women's groups wanted a say but the government cancelled a constitutional conference organized by the Advisory Council on the Status of Women.

The council's president, Doris Anderson, resigned in protest, kicking off a high-profile fight. On Feb. 14, 1981, about 1,300 women from across the country marched into the Parliament buildings and held their own Ad Hoc Women and the Constitution Conference to debate the charter.

They called for a stronger equality rights clause and a specific guarantee of equal rights between men and women. Both reforms were included in the final Charter.

On Tuesday, many of the original participants joined other generations of feminists on Parliament Hill for another Valentine's Day conference. This time, they took stock of past accomplishments for women's rights and discussed the future challenges.

Anderson, whose resignation played a key role in the original conference, said some significant improvements have been made.

"In some respects, we're doing extremely well: there are women lawyers, women doctors, in numbers that we couldn't have even imagined back then," Anderson, who attended Tuesday's conference, told the CBC Newsworld program Politics.

"And women are excelling scholastically. For years, we thought boys were smarter and women couldn't get their pretty little heads around math and science. Now we find that women are doing just as well.

However, Anderson said women still lag behind men in two crucial areas.

"We still haven't cracked the corporate world and we're terribly behind in legislation, in the House of Commons and our provincial legislatures."

Women hold less than 25 per cent of the seats in Parliament and only about 15 per cent of senior executive positions.

Some people contend that those fields have opened their doors to women, but that women are making choices that leave them underrepresented there.

Anderson rejected that argument.

"I think that's bunk. Our problem is we have an electoral system called the first past-the-post system and women are disadvantaged greatly by that system."

She called instead for a system of proportional representation.

"In country after country – New Zealand, Scotland, Wales they almost doubled the number of women when they changed from first past-the-post to proportional representation."

In comparison, she said Britain, Canada and the United States – which all have first-past-the-post systems – "rank abysmally" in terms of the proportion of women politicians.

Participants at the 2006 conference also said women are still struggling with workplace issues, including the goal of equal pay.

Disproportionately high rates of poverty and domestic violence were also raised as outstanding problems faced by women.